5 tips to help news organizations boost their grant writing strategies

Grants can be a meaningful revenue stream for publishers that are looking to sustain their operations or expand or deepen their coverage areas — no matter if they are nonprofit or for-profit.

By Madeline Vassallo

December 22, 2020

Grants can be a meaningful revenue stream for publishers that are looking to sustain their operations or expand or deepen their coverage areas — no matter if they are nonprofit or for-profit.

This is especially true this year, as outlets look to supplement drops in other revenue sources because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, grants from foundations account for about 25% of the annual funding for The Texas Tribune in a normal year, and will account for even more this year, according to Terry Quinn, The Tribune’s Chief Development Officer. 

Quinn, along with leaders from consultancy Penn Creative Strategy, spoke recently to the Lenfest News Philanthropy Network, a growing community of practice for fundraising professionals in journalism, to share strategies for how news organizations can know which grants to apply for and maximize their chances of success. 

Here are the five main takeaways from the discussion:

1. Grant Writing is Time Consuming Work

One of the most important points to consider before beginning the grant writing process, is that it is time consuming work — and much of the work happens without the guarantee of getting any funding. Funders often work at a slower pace then newsrooms are used to, and there’s often a risk that the news moment will pass before the decision is made. 

Quinn told journalists to consider whether the outlet has the bandwidth not only to complete the project, but to also complete the documentation and reporting needed for the grant.   

“You have to really take some time to assess internally if you have the right setup for this,” Quinn warned. 

She explained that it might be helpful to consider hiring a part time grant writer if needed and to ensure that the grant has support from leadership and the newsroom. Being prepared before starting the grant writing process will ensure that no time is wasted.

2. Stay in Contact With the Newsroom

It is crucial to stay in constant communication with the newsroom throughout the grant writing process to ensure that you are actually applying for something the newsroom can deliver on and that everyone involved is on the same page. 

It can be a challenge to think ahead since newsrooms often focus on day-to-day coverage, but in order to apply for a grant, a plan must be made months in advance. Building a connection with your newsroom and understanding their priorities can allow for the most beneficial projects to be developed. 

Quinn urged journalists to “challenge [the newsroom] to think ahead… and share what they are hoping to do that you can help make possible through grants.” 

She then gave an example of this from her experiences at the Tribune. By understanding the newsroom’s priorities, and engaging with them to think ahead, she was able to apply for grant funds that supported growth in a targeted area.  

“A year ago, our editor-in-chief at the time came to me and said ‘We really want to bring on a women’s health reporter’… and within six months we had two and a half years of funding pledged for that position” Quinn shared.

3. Take Time to Find and Cultivate Prospects

The process of finding and cultivating prospects should be well thought out. It can be much more difficult to get a grant proposal accepted if you just apply blindly without making a personal connection. 

“In some foundations you need their permission to actually apply for a grant,” Penn Creative Strategy CEO Molly Penn shared. “Even if you do not need it, it is best to get it because then they are really primed and ready and waiting for your proposal, as opposed to it coming in cold and out of the blue from someone they do not know.”

Foundations do not often state that they support journalism, so it is important for journalists to find foundations that have mission priorities that align with the reporting of the news organization.  

“There are not as many journalism funders as there are for other areas,” said Marissa Lewis, a senior consultant with Penn Creative Strategy. “You may have to approach, for example, a funder that is interested in health and guide them along and take them on the journey with you and explain to them why funding a journalistic series on a particular health issue is something they should be supporting.”

Examples of other mission-focused priorities are community awareness, civic action, coronavirus information, and education. By showing a foundation that the issues they care about are being reported on in a newsroom, news organizations can educate funders on the importance of independent journalism and better paint the picture for how a grant may be used. 

4. Pay attention to tracking and reporting outcomes

Keeping in touch with the newsroom is also helpful when it comes to tracking data to report to foundations. Foundations will not just cut you a check and send you on your way — all grants come with reporting requirements on how the funds were utilized and the impact of the work. 

Tracking and reporting metrics can be a new process for many newsrooms and, therefore, may seem overwhelming, but Quinn explained why this requirement can be a win-win. 

“Years ago when we were asked by a foundation to supply metrics that we did not have the capability of supplying, we actually got extra money in our grant from that foundation to get the software we needed to supply that information,” Quinn mentioned.

Because many foundations do not traditionally fund journalism, a robust dialogue is important to have with them since their metrics systems may often be set up for different kinds of nonprofits. This gives journalists the opportunity to work with foundations to create more beneficial metrics reporting systems. 

5. Continue Deepening Relationship with Foundations

Stewardship is much more than just reporting to foundations. It is essential to stay in touch with funders to share updates on the progress of the project they are funding. By communicating regularly and making the funders feel like partners, it can help convince them to continue their support. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Quinn and The Texas Tribune team sent messages to their funders to check in and to share how The Tribune was reporting on the coronavirus. 

“We were so far ahead in our relationships with foundations, that by the time the [coronavirus-related] grant process came up, we were already in the queue to receive that invitation to apply,” Quinn shared.

She explained that one foundation decided to only accept coronavirus related grants, which would not have included the application from The Texas Tribune. Quinn received a call, however, from that foundation stating that the reporting they were doing on the pandemic was just as important and qualified for the grant — all because of the ongoing relationship they had been building. 

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